Assignment: Context Book – Too Big to Know

@Michael or @Kyle – If this report is still too long to meet the assignment, please let me know.


This report is based on:

Cover - Too Big to Know by David Weinberger

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.


Too Big to Know by David Weinberger successfully critiques the Western model of “book shaped thought” while proving there remains a place for it. It is a clear yet amusing diagnosis of major internet problems and a call to action spread out across nine chapters. Here it is in summary, with chapters marked:

[Prologue] There is a crisis in knowledge. We do not know what to be certain of anymore.[1] We have knowledge overload in part because our filters bring what we want closer without eliminating anything. [2] Facts as we understand them today only came about in the 19th Century. Facts today are becoming unnailed because of too much data. [3] Knowledge no longer lives in books or brains but in the network itself. We shall explore the implications of this for the rest of this book.

[4] Networked experts can come from anywhere. Here are examples.[5] Because filters now work to bring what we want closer, there is a danger of being trapped in an echo chamber with the potential to radicalize ourselves. To have a constructive dialog we must have “just enough” diversity.

[6] Knowledge in book form has been the pinnacle of Western ideas about knowledge. But a book implies a finality that doesn’t really embrace the true form of knowledge. Footnotes in books are stopping points but footnotes in networked documents are invitations to explore.

[7] The vast amount of science data being collected today combined with networked data has brought about significant changes and has begun involving non-scientists. Here are some examples. [8] Networked knowledge has transformed the nature of leadership. Here are examples.

[9] Our intelligence and knowledge is a function of the network. How a network is structured matters as it can make us very smart or very stupid. Five things that would build a smart network are – open access to materials, better metadata, strong linking, put the work of institutions on the Net and teaching everyone to use the internet effectively. [Notes] Here are all of my sources for you to consider and link to.

If you would like to take a deep dive into this book’s content, see this hour and a half video of David Weinberger’s lecture followed by a rather intelligent panel discussion:

Lessons and Opportunities for Libraries

Harnessing the Power of Webscale

In chapters four (The Expertise of Clouds) and seven (Too Much Science) Weinberger provides examples of regular people getting involved in the work of experts. Chapter four deals mostly with business examples involving prizes or paid work. Chapter seven deals mostly with people freely volunteering to do work. I believe such ventures, especially the nonprofit type “citizen science” reported on in chapter seven could have far reaching implications for libraries including a true liberation of special collections materials.

David Weinberger discusses Galaxy Zoo in chapter seven (p. 132). Galaxy Zoo was started in 2007 because a research team had over a million galaxy images without staff to classify them as spiral or elliptical. Computers were bad at this work.  The solution was to put the images out on the open web on a site where interested people could classify them using a structured set of questions. Multiple classifications were gathered for each image. The results showed that crowdsourcing resulted in accurate classifications.

Thankfully the Galaxy Zoo team recognized that they had a good technological approach to producing reliable results from large image sets using volunteer classifiers. They established the Zooniverse and expanded to projects across a number of disciplines. One project directly analogous to special library collections is the Notes from Nature project which harvests the efforts of volunteers to transcribe museum specimen cards of plants, bugs and birds.

Link to press release for Notes From Nature.

While Notes from Nature is volunteer powered, the team behind it is planning outreach efforts to boost the number of volunteers as shown in this crowdfunding video:

I think their need to fund an outreach effort may be a caution for libraries wishing to implement this kind of approach. People won’t volunteer to do something if it is not seen as intrinsically interesting or valuable. Libraries may need to choose between projects likely to be popular or perhaps set aside some funds to take an Amazon Mechanical Turk (p. 53) approach where you pay people for piecework.

But I think either approach would make some projects possible that are not currently seen as feasible, such as transcribing whole sets of correspondence  or historical indexing materials. This would take a lot of information off the shelves and out of file drawers and make them available to the network at large. This leads to the second opportunity for libraries – To build Weinberger’s “better rooms.”

Building Better Rooms

Throughout Too Big to Know, Weinberger asserts that the smartest person in the room isn’t the biggest brain or every the group of people in room, but the room itself. A poorly constructed room can result in echo chambers and groupthink, while a well constructed room can enable constructive conversations and continuous knowledge discovery.

In chapter 9, Weinberger suggests five building blocks to “help make the networking of knowledge the blessing it should be.” (Weinberger, p. 183):

  1. Open up access
  2. Provide the hooks for intelligence (metadata)
  3. Link everything
  4. Leave no institutional knowledge behind
  5. Teach everyone

While each of these activities have been carried out by libraries to some degree, I would like to focus on the one area where I think libraries can have the greatest impact – Teach Everyone.

David Weinberger is very clear that our society has a responsibility to teach people how to use digital tools well and that this instruction needs to start early:

If we want the Net to move knowledge forward, then we need to educate our children from the earliest possible age about how to use the Net, how to evaluate knowledge claims, and how to love difference. (p. 191)

Libraries and librarians have been doing the first two (how to use, how to evaluate) since the early days of the Net. I believe that “how to love difference” is implied by the broad collection development policies of most libraries. However, our efforts are not very visible to the society at large and I think that part of the reason is fragmentation of effort. We have a multiplicity of “one stop digital literacy” websites either created or supported by libraries such as:

Each of these initiatives has a separate brand, communications plan and different pull on libraries. We might have more success in promoting digital literacy if states or regions could pull together and teach and market under one banner.

 Another reason that “teach everyone” is not immediately recognizable as a library area of expertise is lack of resources devoted to school librarians, especially in the United States. If we are going to educate our children on knowing how to use the internet well from a very early age, we need school librarians. Given the appropriate support, they can do it as school librarians such as Shannon McClintock Miller have shown. See her Van Meter Library Voice blog to see just what a well motivated — and supported — school librarian can do to empower children to be wise and enthusiastic users of the Net.


In his book Too Big to Know, David Weinberger not only offers a diagnosis of a significant problem in our society — that our book shaped knowledge no longer fits our experience and this has loosened the common ground of our society, he also outlines the opportunities that await us if we can build a better room/network of knowledge. Libraries have the tools to build this room. We just have to do it together and in a way that involves our patrons.


Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

via MOOCing Up North

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